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WhatsApp is Not Email. Do Not Manage Your Business With Messages

By Guest Writer on June 25, 2020

whatsapp not email

At the end of 2019 Kenya’s mobile penetration reached 112% – in Kenya, there are more SIM cards than persons – compared to 80% for Africa.  Nearly 200 million of those who are connected, use WhatsApp making it the most popular messaging platform in Africa. But WhatsApp is not email and while they may be used interchangeably, for businesses and business processes, this can be a nightmare.

In November 2018, when ReaMedica Healthcare Kenya (RMH) opened our health clinic in Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya, for the first few months nearly everything was communicated on WhatsApp.  In fairness, when working in low-and-middle-income-countries (LMICs), people are more likely to own a smartphone than access to a computer and data bundles are often cheaper than mobile airtime for texts and talking.

More Wifi Equaled More WhatsApp

I believed that once we had Wifi installed and a computer for the staff to use, our business and operational communications would be mainly from email. The reality is that Internet access, even free, does not equal usage.

It was not a question of access, it was a question of habit and behaviours. Access to Wifi at work did not facilitate a readiness to communicate over email, it merely made it easier and cheaper to communicate over WhatsApp.

Three months after Wifi was installed, emails would take days to get a response. Ironically, I would send WhatsApp messages to the staff to check and respond to emails. Employees, vendors and stakeholders accepted communications over WhatsApp and for the staff, moving to email only made things more difficult on ourselves.

What was more alarming was that we were sharing information and documentation with vendors and external parties over WhatsApp.  Communicating everything on WhatsApp, means that information is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere which equals no accountability.

How We Use Business Email

Corporate or business-related emails can be laborious, and it is often a CYA (Cover-Your-Ass) tool.  By cc’ing anyone you think could be remotely involved.  But the staff’s usage was the exact opposite.  Emails were simple one-to-one WhatsApp message over email, persons who should be on distribution were not.   Emails are not conversations and constructing a succinct email requires some thought and preparation.

I explained (in an email) to the RMH staff that subject titles, who is on the distribution, and how to structure the message. That WhatsApp is not to be used to communicate with business partners, vendors or share sensitive internal communications especially as we had bought computers for the office.

Also, the ability to quickly and easily search for email messages and threads enhance accountability was not obvious when you are operating in a marketplace where receipts and invoices are a standard part of the transaction.

For businesses, especially start-up businesses who are unable to afford enterprise systems for inventory, sales tracking and even human resource services. Emails provide electronic documentation of communications and transaction history, it can be used as a simplistic but effective audit tool.

The Problem with WhatsApp in Business

We informed our vendors that we need the price quotes, delivery schedules, invoices or receipts on email for record keeping.  Most of the suppliers would communicate with our staff over WhatsApp.  A few begrudgingly began working with us over email but others felt it was too much of a hassle to work solely over email i.e. our orders weren’t large enough to merit the “additional work”.

For those that did agree, getting vendors to respond via email was its own odyssey.  We would send an email and then would follow-up over the phone to have them respond electronically. What might take a day took multiple calls and several days to get them to respond.

Several vendor salespersons refused anything but WhatsApp and so we would follow-up with an email to the salesperson recapping and adding in the documentation, typically a purchase order or invoice.

Early on orders were incomplete despite cross-checking and requiring approvals of the department head, the lapse occurred because we mixed conversations, WhatsApp and phone calls.  Astonishingly some orders of more than 15 items were submitted by our staff on WhatsApp, literally typing out pharmaceuticals, quantities and pricing.

Information was everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, the chances of getting an order incorrect orders were high, and it happened frequently and just with supplies.

Moving From WhatsApp to Email

Stock-outs meant potential customers seeking services elsewhere and reordering one-offs added shipping costs. To address this, we implemented a policy that orders were to be put in excel and internal approval obtained by email.

Orders substantiated on WhatsApp were fined and that the staff member placing the order would responsible for half of the amount of the write-offs for mix-ups in supplies and inventory orders and the full amount of additional shipping costs incurred for incomplete orders.  The purpose was not to create more bureaucracy but rather to reinforce predictable uniformity in oversight, tracking, verification and internal communication.

Asking people to do things differently requires explanation, repetition, time and enforcement but not necessarily in that order.  What we asked them to do seemed more foreign than practical, so in the short-term we focused on enforcement, repetition and adoption. After more than a year, all internal management issues, vendor communications and procurement orders are only communicated through email.

Since shifting our procurement through email, we have reduced the time to receive orders from weeks to days (typically within 48 hours) which in turn has nearly eliminated our stock-outs and errors in ordering.

Now if we only had enough computers

The emphasis on email, is about business processes, traceability and the clear separation of business versus personal communications.  The ease and ubiquity of WhatsApp makes it a wonderful tool for quick communications and personal messaging and judiciously as an adjunct to email but not as the primary means of business related communications.

Michael Seo is the Managing Partner at ReaMedica Health

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16 Comments to “WhatsApp is Not Email. Do Not Manage Your Business With Messages”

  1. I find that a very Western approach to WhatsApp and ignorant of the realities of millions of successful businesses in emerging markets. Such a statement reminds me of the old days of ICT4D before the Digital Principles and a purely Western approach to how and what technology should be used in international development contexts.

    Interesting experience that you share Michael Seo but have you considered connecting WhatsApp to contact centre solutions that your staff or head office could use to still allow people to use the coms channel they prefer (WhatsApp) while also addressing your business needs.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Lukas, the point you bring up about meeting people where they are is very salient. As is Michael’s need to document business transactions. We are surely in a time of transition, where services like WhatsApp are challenging the supremacy of email, and causing many discussions like this one (hence the post). I’m hoping this post will bring forth links to solutions that can merge WhatsApp, email, and a workflow system that would then bring order to seeminly chaotic comms.

    • Michael Seo says:

      There is no argument that business models and services are founded on or use Whatsapp extensively and effectively. Managing certain business processes and the consideration of legal standing – in some emerging markets, email communications have legal standing with regard to human resources and transactions.

      One mode of communication doesn’t cancel out the other, they can coexist and each has their benefits. To Wayan’s point solutions are evolving and staff use whatsapp for it’s timeliness but communications to vendors and official documentation is on email.

  2. Valentine J Gandhi says:

    Indonesians would disagree!

  3. Well, you shouldn’t manage business with emails either.

  4. Muhammad Mizanur Rashid Shuvra says:

    I agree with the argument of the author. Given the immaturity of different ICT for communication, people may have improvised ways to use them customized to their “comfort”. However, a dynamite can be used to either create mines and dig, or kill lives. Either way the function is damage. Therefore, no matter how you intend to use a technology for what it is not made for will most likely take it back to what it was meant for, in this case some quick Short Messaging System (SMS).

    Vota’s remark on a potential integrated platform serving a wider and inclusive purpose also crossed my mind as I was reading the blog. Advent of newer technology to make it acceptable to a wider range of culture and practices is the only solution. I also think people making alternative arguments and/or disagreeing to this blog needs to have a first hand experience of the reality and challenges encountered everyday in a country like Kenya where continuous monitoring and evaluation of any project at some point tends to become a personal issue rather than a more official one, and hence, explains the reason for making SMS like platform more comfortable, since this is also used for communicating with their friends and relatives.

    In my opinion migrating to a more formal business communication channel that allows for proper documentation would be inevitably challenged by a complicated mixture of psychological, cultural and historical component as it relates to use of technology. Nevertheless, much that we want the liberty of a society to choose their ways of communicating, it is not practical to allow a diversity of ineffective business model.

  5. I’m reading this as a features request list for WhatsApp for business, and perhaps something for Turn.io to help with, more than a call to impose email norms on a workforce.

    • Turn.io says:

      Many of our partners successfully use WhatsApp for Business as their key communication tool. We believe you should talk to customers on an app that they know and trust, and where they already spend a great deal of their time.

  6. Brent Chism says:

    Mogli has done the best job that I know of at leveraging WhatsApp as a scalable communication tool for emerging market businesses. I’d be curious to hear their thoughts on this discussion.

  7. Shuvra says:

    I don’t think the author disputes with the idea to running a business using WhatsApp as means of communicatio, however depending on the nature of the short term and long term purpose of communications, the magnitude and intricacies of activities and systematic documentations for legal purposes using WhatsApp in lieu of emails should make managing a project more challengin.

  8. Sharon Againe says:

    I find this article very interesting and the author is probably going through adoption to how we do our things especially in East Africa at the same time as he repeats over and over to get his staff differ from our culture to the western norms. This is something I have noted with the trending meetings and e-conference COVID-19 webinar events on Zoom..Skype..Google meet, Telegram e.t.c. versus WhatsApp. You can easily get the best network connection via WhatsApp video than with Zoom wherever you are in Uganda.

    I recently conducted a forum on impact of COVID-19 on agri-related businesses and we hosted over 700 participants on WhatsApp groups with 90% delivered and viewed statistics from over 55 countries mostly from Africa. The next time I hosted it on Zoom, it was a total failure with technical problems and poor internet connections. We are holding interviews on WhatsApp video with more ease as compared to Zoom or GoogleMeet.

    I have been in the field of Knowledge sharing since 2010 and I have seen technology develop in Africa especially East Africa. As a publisher of Agribusiness Directory, we deal a lot with telephone phone numbers and emails. In our first versions of online website before we resorted to print version as advertisers found it more formal than advertising on the website.

    During our process of managing the website, we noted a lot of complaints from web visitors on subscribers not responding to their emails. We were forced to be cc in the initial emails received through our website. After that, we would make a phone and send a text to the subscribers alerting them of the incoming email. Then encourage them to respond or tell us their response and we reply the email on their behalf. It was very tidious!

    Around 2015, WhatsApp usage boomed especially in Uganda and we started Agribusiness Platform group with only 14 subscribers of our directory; by the end of the year, we had over 3,000 participants most of which were actually discussing business.

    As someone who got training in the West, I have been guiding the groups over and over to limit the information exchanged on the groups and via WhatsApp DM recommending them to use emails something that could help us to track scammers/conmen on the platform.

    We even tried to form our own corporate mobile app but it was not picking and we had to return to WhatsApp where the masses are. Then tried Telegram such that we can reduce on the number of groups managed but still we had fewer yes votes for this option.

    It was interesting to find out that participants preferred voting or doing a survey from WhatsApp groups or direct message but they were reluctant to go to the link to fill the Google form.

    I am not sure if repeatedly telling staff and community to use email will help but rather
    I would recommend to adopt to places where your target market is comfortable; but for certain business practices like marketing and attending to inquiries. Then encourage them through WhatsApp to read their emails especially where figures are involved.

    We currently use WhatsApp groups for sharing knowledge on farming practices and markets. At the same time get advertisers who want to reach the mass and get statistics of viewers. It has worked well so far though it is still difficult to come up with a sustainable business model through WhatsApp.

    • Toni Maraviglia says:

      Super interesting Sharon! At Teach For All, we’ve also held workshops for teachers on WhatsApp itself called “Using WhatsApp for instruction” (meta!). We used Zoom audio as a way to sync ourselves, but the vast majority of the workshop was on WhatsApp. People are more rapidly able to share videos, voice notes, images, and links. It is particularly helpful for keeping group discussions going once a workshop or learning experience is over. The workshops range from 10 people to over 100 people at a time.

      Personally, I struggle in an environment where email is king. Email was just not our way of working at my company (Eneza) in Kenya. I think it slows down communication and is clunky. I’d rather have much more functionality in a messaging platform like WhatsApp. I also think email reinforces a characteristic of white-supremacist culture, “worship of the written word” that is not necessarily the best way of working. (I love this resource on this by the way: https://www.uuare.org/cwsc )

      • Wayan Vota says:

        Toni, interesting to think of email as reinforcing white-supremacist culture.
        The written word has certainly been used to marginalize people (asking native people to sign treaties they can’t read or understand, refusing to teach minority populations’ language vs. colonial language, come to mind), however the reluctance to document is also a way to perpetuate bias, discrimination, and certainly graft in business. Today, its imperative that there is strong documentation of some sort in a highly functional business.
        I think we can both agree that WhatsApp is good at documenting, but isn’t good at storing or sorting information, so could something like Slack, that documents in multiple formats and has good storing/sorting, be a better option?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Sharon, I don’t think the author is arguing against using WhatsApp for groups. I certainly would be the first to promote its use to any group that is already on it – or on FB, TikTok, or whatever comes next.
      The main rule of any group formation is to go where the group already is, and use communication tools and styles they are already familiar with.

  9. Coming from Kenya, Seo’s observation an insistence of using e-mail, is sensible. Too much forwards on Whats-App and indeed twitting in Kenya is enormous. Very often we’re forced to clear our phone memories to create space (given that the majority of us hold mobile phones with small memory) and thus lose or misplace crucial information in the process.
    But i have been educated by the comment here. On how we can change to fit in the changing times and with thesupersonic speed of technology-change, change will surely change whose time seems a luxury.

  10. Neil Patel says:

    Michael,

    I feel your pain. Many businesses in India (including large corporations we enngage with as clients) conduct all kinds of business on WA and it’s challenging.

    I don’t think converting people out to email is the solution. Instead, go the other way and find a way to make order out of the chaos through better tools. Something like this may even be immediately relevant for your use case: https://www.zendesk.com/company/press/zendesk-introduces-whatsapp-zendesk/

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